I offered some advice on how to manage the overall arc of your career in an earlier post. Today, I’ll focus on the the halcyon period of entry level work. Specifically, how to get promoted out of it.
This should unquestionably be the easiest promotion of your career and you should aim to get it fast. If you linger too long in low level work your professional brand takes on the untenable scent of “failure to launch” and practically speaking almost all entry level work is underpaid, so getting up and out quickly is important in your quest to make real money and start building your net worth.
What constitutes a “quick” promotion out of entry level? Top performers should target one to two years. Average performers should be looking at two to three years. If you’re in entry level work for more than three years you’re doing something wrong. So how do you go about getting that first promotion?
Know Your (Secret) Job Description
Most junior employees don’t know what their job is. Oh, they know what the LinkedIn job post said the company was looking for, and (if they’re lucky enough to have good manager) they have goals and priorities to accomplish. So they dutifully show up every morning and design a web page, or make sales calls, or process the payroll. Those are important tasks – certainly ones that you should become technically proficient at – but they aren’t your real job. Every entry level white collar worker in America shares the same unspoken job description and it can be summed up in one sentence:
Make your boss’s life easier.
To be frank, your manager’s job is harder than yours. Middle management is the worst gig in corporate America by a long shot. They’re constantly asked to put strategy they had no input in crafting into practice. They suffer the complaints and demands of those above and below them in the organization. They need to delegate yet not be afraid to “get their hands dirty”. They get blamed when things go wrong. They get no credit when things go right. Often, they are figuring out how to manage for the first time with little training or support. This is likely why they are 64% more likely to suffer depression than their subordinates.
Do everything in your power to make your manager’s life easier. Here are a few practical tips:
For an overworked and stressed out middle manager a surprise sucks. If another department has uncovered an issue with yours, give your boss the heads up. If a customer is getting frustrated and wants to escalate your manager should find out from you first. Even good things shouldn’t come as a surprise – anecdotes of success and positive momentum in the business equips your manager with valuable ammunition in the political war waging around you (one you are probably unaware of).
Keep pushing on this to the extreme. Check traffic well ahead of a meeting the two of you are attending to make sure it isn’t jammed. Remember that one conference room where the AV system never works right. Remind your boss of your upcoming vacation; trust me, he forgot about the approval he gave you two months ago.
Better still, don’t just come to your boss early with problems…
An early warning on a bubbling problem is good, but an early solution is better. Even if your boss doesn’t implement your suggestion, it will mute the impact of bringing a problem to her attention. Over time you will cement your image as the department’s problem solver. Suggest a coverage plan for your vacation. Ensure your boss leaves early for the meeting because traffic is jammed. Suggest an appropriate renumeration for that disgruntled customer.
Every manager has a subset of employees that she thinks of as her “fixers/doers” – be that person.
Ask the Right Questions
There are two types of questions, those designed to help the asker and those designed to help the asked. Generally speaking, find other people to ask questions that help you: How can I order more printer ink? When does the marketing promotion start? Who is the client’s point of contact?
The best questions asked of your boss are different. They should be questions designed to help her explore her own thinking more deeply. You should approach your questioning in a style that expresses your curiosity to better understand your bosses thinking, which has the happy consequence of helping your boss better understand their own thinking. Ask probing questions that help clarify the origin of your bosses thinking (“why do you say that?”), challenge their assumptions (“are there times that isn’t the case?”), discover alternative points of view (“whats the best counter-argument to that?”), explore implications (“what do you think the result of this will be?”). It’s a Socratic approach that helps cultivate curiosity and critical thinking in both you and your boss. When deployed deftly, you’ll come across as incredibly thoughtful and wise beyond your years – something young people typically have difficulty doing.
Be an Adult
I cannot express how simple yet strikingly uncommon a mature, professional disposition is in the workplace, particularly among junior workers. Just be an adult. Show up on time. Follow through on your commitments. Do not engage in office drama.
That last one is utterly exhausting for your boss. Someone is always upset with someone about something. Handle your own business. Learn to brush off your less pleasant colleagues. Nothing will lose you the respect of your manager faster than constantly bringing interpersonal drama to her attention.
This is one place where a little conservatism and stoicism goes a long way. Act older than your age. Don’t gush about your weekend of binge drinking. Dress professionally and maintain your hygiene. In short, be someone who you would entrust with a high degree of responsibility.
Cater to Your Boss
This one is simple: get to know your boss, understand her preferences and adjust your behavior to benefit her. Does she respond to email, in-person, or Slack communication best? Default to that communication. Does she tend to get in earlier? You should too. Does she have a pet peeve for typos? Ask a colleague to proof your work before submitting it. There are a lot of individual preferences that make up a working relationship. Adjust to your bosses preferences, don’t make her adjust to yours. One of the most effective pro tips for a junior employee is simply to pop by your manager’s desk at the end of each day and ask if there is anything else you can do for her – I assure you almost none of your peers will do this and making it a regular habit will set you apart.
On a related note, remember your boss is a human being. You should not become your manager’s friend, but you definitely should be friendly. People promote people they enjoy working with, so be fun to work with. Crack a joke, keep things light, make smalltalk about shared interests, and most critically – give your boss positive feedback. Like anyone else, your boss will have insecurities about themselves and their work. One of the most effective ways to ingratiate yourself to your boss is to let them know when and how they are doing a good job. A simple “I really appreciated when you stood up for our team in that meeting – thank you,” can mean the world to your manager. Your peers will be needy and constantly asking for feedback from your manager – be the one person to encourage and support her. This isn’t about brown nosing with inane flattery, it’s about recognizing and being vocal about what you genuinely admire about your boss. More critical feedback has its place but frankly, unless you have a really healthy relationship with your boss you should avoid it.
Getting the Goods
OK, you’ve followed all my advice and you are now the model entry level employee. Now what?
At a minimum, demonstrate the promotable behavior I described above for six months before broaching the subject of a promotion. If you’ve had any missteps along the way extend that timeline to one year. After that, you should proactively have a specific conversation with your boss about your career. You should indicate that you’re looking to make a bigger impact, take on more responsibility, and that you have ambition for a promotion. Ask your boss if they feel you are on track for a promotion. If she says yes ask for a sense of timeline and how that lines up with broader corporate timelines. That timeline should be less than one year, otherwise you’re just being strung along. Specifically, ask what you need to deliver such that you’ll be a slam dunk when your boss puts in a request for your promotion. Once you are aligned on a timeline and specific outcomes needed to earn your promotion regularly check in with your boss on where she feels you are progressing towards your goal – once every month or two is about right. When the time comes you should look for an upward change in title and 15%-25% more pay. You will probably still be an individual contributor, but if there are opportunities for pre-management development courses (or perhaps managing the new intern) ask for that as part of your promotion. Don’t be afraid to negotiate a bit on your promotion offer, but recognize you have very little leverage.
If you achieve what you and your boss agreed upon within the agreed upon timeline and you do not receive a promotion start looking for another job. Chances are your boss doesn’t have enough clout, your company isn’t achieving enough growth to justify promotions, or you simply aren’t doing as well as you think you are. In any of these scenarios, chances are unlikely you’ll rectify them quickly. You should job hop. There is absolutely no excuse for staying in entry level work for more than a few years.
If your boss does not feel you are on track for a promotion you should get specific feedback on what needs to change for you to get on track. You should spend considerable time reflecting on that feedback and how you could develop as a professional. Accept this setback as part of developing your growth mindset. However, you should immediately start looking for another job. Even if you’re a miserable cow that truly sucks at their job, you now have a few years of work experience and can easily get a pay bump by job hopping. Always strive for self-improvement, but in the early phase of your career you cannot afford to stand still for more than a few years.
This is, of course, just the beginning.